- Vanilla Crumble
Certain tastes are so closely woven into a particular moment that to remember the moment is to experience that very special taste once again. Like childhood, birthdays . . . and Arnawaz's cake! To remember one is to recall all three. How would I know where one begins and the other ends?
Keeping track of the passing years means adding up all the birthdays. (Obviously, in childhood. Otherwise, what's one more year as you grow older? Why should another milestone be the cause of such happiness and excitement?) Birthdays with balloons, flags, paper hats, friends and relatives, and then in front of all of them, blowing out the candles on a cake that no one could have made except for Arnawaz.
Our acquaintance with Arnawaz was in connection with our children's birthdays and was limited to the ordering of the birthday cake. Which is why I should perhaps consider her departure as only a small sorrow in the relentless destruction of this city. Did I not say it was limited to the special taste of the birthday cake?
But to get to Arnawaz and her cake was no easy matter. Prior to that was the trawl through innumerable bakeries and the bitter experience of cakes of an assortment of colors, appearances, and tastes. It wasn't that we make any fancy arrangements for Natasha and Anusha. At Qidwai Sahib's house on such occasions, they have a magic show (in which the magician wears a black coat and hat from which he takes out a real, live rabbit and throws it among the children), a show with a monkey and a bear wearing a pinafore and a frock—and other such amazing acts. On their first and second birthdays, we did go all out with big celebrations. (But those were the days of Abba Mian, and he got the whole clan together for sheer mal and qorma from Dilli Kali Muslim Hotel. For him, only a sheer mal qorma dinner was a proper function.) After that, the functions were limited to the children only. But the thing is that no matter on what small scale the function is, the cake has to be right: not too sweet, nor too bland; neither too pink nor absolutely colorless; not too small and not so large as to be in bad taste. A cake that is just right is no simple matter.
Certainly there were dozens of bakeries in our own neighborhood, and they must have had hundreds of cakes growing stale and dusty on frosted glass shelves, with flies swarming over their raw, floury icing. "You'll definitely get [End Page 40] cholera from eating them!" In my childhood, Mother had instilled in me a fear of eating stuff from the bazaar.
For one or two years, we bought cakes from Hollywood Bakery, which belonged to an Irani, with white tiles on the walls and netting on the cupboards. But after the first couple of times, we got the impression that we were chewing leather gilded with sugar. (Whoever gets established starts giving short weight in no time.) Tabassum would get cross just hearing this bakery wallah's name.
Once we got a cake from JJ Bakery, whose prices were the highest in the whole area and where, according to Farooq, the workers were all fair-skinned, respectful, obedient boys. On another occasion, when we had a big dinner, we got a cake from that five-star hotel whose name has changed but not its standards. All these cakes were just OK—not that we were looking for something so extraordinary that it couldn't be found. If we weren't happy with these cakes, neither were we complaining. How could we? We had no idea what we were missing.
It was then that somebody told us about Arnawaz. When I come to think of it, I am sure it was Begum Minhaj. She had said, "This woman doesn't take everyone's order. She caters from her house. Ring her and give my reference. For Noni and Roji's birthdays, I get the cakes done by her. She takes orders...